woody and fibrous

A fellow sailor posted this to her blog:

“It would be a steel hulled with wooden masts that sleeps at least 20. Maybe one or two squares in the rig, or a gaff topsail schooner. Something like the R.Tucker Thompson. I’d advertise on the internet and in magazines to do charters, ed trips, youth at risk programs, whatever was in demand in Puget Sound, Vancouver Island and Southeast Alaska. But it would be weekend or weeklong trips minimum, none of this daysail nonsense. And we’d have a good boat dog and allow at least one crew to raise a kid on board.

What would YOU do if you had you’re own tall ship?”

i emailed her to ask:

Why would your personal ultimate tall ship have a metal hull?
Wouldn’t you rather sand and oil/varnish rather than chip and paint? Did you
have a bad wooden hull experience somewhere?

She replied:

Other people’s wooden hulls are wonderful. Operating a tall ship out of
the “red” means facing reality over romance, in my opinioin. At least I
didn’t say glass! I’d want everything else wood. Natural/stain finish too.
Nobody frowns at R. Tucker.

Well, this all interests me an awful lot. There’s two interesting points/debates opening up here. First off, there’s the whole universal “to wood or not to wood” debate. i had a good chuckle when i read that line about “other people’s wooden hulls”; that’s pretty much been my mantra for awhile! This more because of than despite the fact that i work as a shipwright. Still, having seen the whole spectrum, from pristine 100 year old wooden boats to blistered, delaminated, powdery 10 year old ‘glass boats (and every other implicit combination of age, material, and condition), i’ve come to see that wood is not so bad after all.
There seems to be this commonly-held, nearly universal belief that wooden boats are a maintenance nightmare, both physically and financially. This is not neccessarily true! It’s certianly no more true than to say that non-wood boats are maintenance-free (a claim that far too many modern component manufacturers seem to be making these days).
My friend Paul lives full-time aboard his lovely 1967 Cheoy Lee Lion. “Simba” is a Hong Kong-built boat to an Arthur Robb design, 37’, and all wood. The hull is teak over iroko, with a cabin of teak over teak. The spars are spruce. i’ve sailed and raced aboard her, and seen her hauled, so i have a good idea as to her condition, and she’s as pristine a full-time liveaboard as i’ve seen. The two big things in her favour are that a) she was ruthlessly well-built from top-notch materials, and b) Paul lives aboard. The former is obvious, but the latter needs a little explaining: by living aboard, Paul is able to care for Simba in a mellow, day-to-day fashion, always staying on top of things, and never being caught unawares. He does the greater bulk of his own work. Wooden boats get in the most trouble when they are neglected, then taken to professionals for major refit work; what doesn’t hurt the boat is sure to hurt your wallet.
Wood, and by extension wooden boats, requires three simple things to get worked on: time, tools, and skill. Break something on your Beneteau (Bendytoy), and the usual recourse is to buy a new part. With wood, i like the idea of being able to fashion new bits out of salvaged wood with simple hand tools, skill, and time.
Of course, the discussion really isn’t about silly modern ‘glass boats. It’s about traditional boats. A new boat built in metal, with wooden deck, houses, and spars is a good thing, if well-executed (the Tucker is about the best example that comes to my mind), but i can’t see that it’s really a triumph of “reality over romance”. In some ways, a steel hull is safer (certianly, it’s more in line with all the ridiculous modern safety requirements that make it so hard to construct a plank-on-frame boat for passenger-carrying), but in almost any boat, barring collision damage, the most wear and tear, and thus the most maintenace, will be on the deck, houses, spars, and rigging, no matter what they’re made of. A well-constructed wooden hull, made from quality woods, well-caulked and well-painted, can survive almost indefinately while immersed in salt water. Every steel hull i’ve worked on or seen has seemed to require at least as much, and usually more work to keep up than an equivalent wooden hull. Aluminium fares much better, but is still far from “maintenance-free”. So, sure, both wood and metal have their advantages/disadvantages (my personal preference is cold-molded wood, but that’s another story), but there’s something about wood that’s, well, wood. When it comes to traditional boats, wood is the thing.
Then comes the second part of this discussion: tradition. i’ve ranted about this before. The point of the “tallship of one’s own” exercise must be tradition; otherwise, we’d all just get a big enough modern boat and go sailing in mobs, and have the same experience, right? Not so… Myself, i don’t care to play pirates. All the screwing around with deck guns is just more neo-militaristic Americanism. i just want to live in peace and sail with my friends. Still, a traditional boat is what most interests me. Does a stylistic reproduction like the Hawaiian Motoryacht cut it? Nope. How about a beautiful gaff-topsail schooner like Athena (replete with metal hull)? Well, gosh, that’s not quite it either. The Tucker is pretty nice, but if i wanted real tradition, and could have anything, i’d have wood. Ideally, a tallship of my own would be bought and paid for, with no banker at the door. Crewed by enthusiastic, skillful folks, maintenance, both as a physical and financial burden, could be kept light, i’d never see a wooden hull as a detriment.
i think that much of the whole tallship vibe is one of working and living in a neo-communal environment. Traditional boats make for more labour, and are typically (at least on most every tallship i’ve been on) laid out below with large common areas, physically sustaining the group dynamic. i think it’s this dynamic that attracts the typical tallship sailor as much or more than the tradition. If this rings more true than not, then it matters less what the hull is made from.
Clearly, being both a traditionally-minded sailor and a professional woodworker really biases me. Even moreso, i am a romantic, and will always rail against the idea that reality must triumph. If reality had triumphed, no one would ever have thought to cross the oceans at all.

Comments welcome…


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